‘It’s not true unless we say so’: Morris School District deals with COVID, real and imagined

Virtual Morris School District board meeting, Sept. 14, 2020. Screen shot by Kevin Coughlin
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As Morris School District officials try to prevent the coronavirus from spreading  at the Hillcrest School, they also are striving to curb “Facebook positives.”

“It’s not true unless we say it’s true,” Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast said through a mask during Monday’s virtual school board meeting.

Mackey Pendergrast, named New Jersey’s Superintendent of the Year by his peers, addresses virtual Morris School District board meeting, Sept. 14, 2020. Screen shot by Kevin Coughlin

He was trying to stem online rumors in the wake of his announcement earlier in the day that a COVID-19 case has been confirmed at the elementary school in Morris Township, less than a week into the new school year.

Teachers and students from a district preschool class at the Morristown Neighborhood House also are self-quarantining after an individual there tested positive, confirmed Patrice Picard, CEO of Cornerstone Family Programs, parent organization of the Neighborhood House.

“No one else is reporting symptoms, staff have tested negative, and all cleaning and disinfecting protocols have been followed,” Picard told Morristown Green.

So far, at least six other districts across the state– Chatham, Howell, Frankford, Little Silver, Washington Township in Gloucester County, and a county vocational school in East Brunswick–have switched to remote learning or imposed quarantines because of positive COVID results, according to The Star-Ledger.

Pendergrast said the Morris School District informed parents and the community within hours of confirming the Hillcrest news. More cases are likely in coming weeks, he predicted, pledging to make basic details available within a half day “in every single scenario.”

Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast discusses COVID-19 at virtual Morris School District board meeting, Sept. 14, 2020. Screen shot by Kevin Coughlin

“We have no reason to hide any information and we have everything to gain by being transparent with the community,” said Pendergrast, who praised faculty and parents for their roles in reopening the district’s 10 schools “under extraordinarily complicated circumstances.”

The infected individual–whose identity was not disclosed–last attended Hillcrest on Wednesday, the second day of classes. Although the state only recommends quarantine for people who spent more than 10 minutes within six feet of that person, Pendergrast said he has directed the entire class and its teacher to stay home for 14 days.

“Today was overwhelming for everyone,” said Ellen Stoloff, whose child is among the Hillcrest students under quarantine. “My heart goes out to the teachers.”

Board member Vij Pawar poses question at virtual Morris School District board meeting, Sept. 14, 2020. Screen shot by Kevin Coughlin

Concerns about privacy, and advice from a board attorney, precluded Pendergrast from even saying whether it was an adult or a child who tested positive, he said.

But “we know exactly where the individual most probably was exposed,” Pendergrast said, indicating he sees no immediate need to shutter the school and switch to all-remote instruction.

That could change, he cautioned, if another person from Hillcrest tests positive over the next few days.

the hillcrest elementary school in morris township

If anyone on a school bus gets the virus, Pendergrast said he will require all riders of that bus, and the driver, to isolate for 14 days.

Classmates of siblings of an infected student won’t be told to quarantine unless the siblings test positive, Pendergrast said.

But he won’t hesitate to close a school for a day or two if time is needed to conduct contact tracing, he said.  At Hillcrest, officials were aware that a positive test result might be imminent, he said.

Schools across the state shifted to virtual learning in mid-March because of the pandemic.. The Morris School District reopened on Sept. 8, 2020, with in-class sessions for K-5 pupils, and a hybrid schedule of virtual- and classroom instruction for grades 6-12.

The district’s 1,000 employees serve 5,700 students from Morristown, Morris Township and (high school only) Morris Plains.

Social distancing protocols have led the district to add school buses, so students have more space during their ride.  On Monday the district board unanimously authorized the $1.5 million lease/purchase of vehicles, along with a parking lot expansion at the Lafayette Learning Center to accommodate more buses.

Board member Melissa Spiotta at virtual Morris School District board meeting, Sept. 14, 2020. Screen shot by Kevin Coughlin

Staggered bus schedules and drop-off times haven’t been the only bumps in the back-to-school road.

Glitches with Google Meets have knocked students out of virtual classes, a problem Pendergrast promised to investigate.  One parent asked for teachers to record these virtual sessions, for replays when livestreams fail.

Morristown High School senior Briana Franco, a student liaison to the board, said classmates are glad for the option of in-class instruction and social interaction, however limited.

Franco gave teachers and administrators high marks for a reopening that’s “really organized,” right down to the disinfectant wipes available in classrooms for cleaning desks.

Pendergrast told a parent he won’t consider green-lighting full in-class instruction until the district has “continuity of learning” for at least two months.

While things aren’t perfect, the superintendent said, improvements are ongoing.

“There’s enough good taking place…that this is worthwhile, Pendergrast said of the reopening.

This story has been updated with information about COVID-19 in other school districts.

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